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When Dell (DELL) executive Stephen Schuckenbrock first considered switching the computing giant from using a traditional software package for sales-force management to a so-called cloud service from Salesforce.com (CRM), he had one nagging worry: Would Dell be locked in to using Salesforce.com forever? "I was concerned about our ability to get off things that don't work," recalls Schuckenbrock, president of Dell's large enterprise business unit, who was previously the company's chief information officer.
Ultimately, he concluded that he would not be locked in by Salesforce.com, and he cut the deal. He felt sure that Dell would be free to shift its sales-force automation program back within its own data center or to another service provider without a lot of pain. One year after launching its Salesforce.com application, the company now has 15,000 employees and 20,000 partners using the system.
Schuckenbrock's dilemma is one that many corporate executives face today. Cloud computing is on the rise, but executives want to be assured that if they make the switch to the cloud they won't regret it later. Depending on how cloud service providers set up their technology, they can make it harder or easier for applications living in one cloud service to interact with those living in others, or for their customers to shift to a different service provider.
It was to head off such problems that IBM (IBM) and other tech companies banded together to produce a document called "The Open Cloud Manifesto," which they made public on Mar. 30. The manifesto has been endorsed so far by more than 30 tech companies and multiple customers. The six-page document is a statement of principles calling for the entire computer industry to keep cloud services as open as possible—making it easy for them to interoperate and for customers to switch service providers with the minimum of bother. "If the industry doesn't come together, the result would be proprietary islands" of data and applications, warns Kristof Kloeckner, IBM's chief technology officer for cloud computing.
Interoperability and lock-in have been major issues throughout the 60-year history of computing. Once businesses standardize on Microsoft (MSFT) Windows or Office programs, or on run-the-business applications from the likes of Oracle (ORCL) and SAP (SAP), it's hard to switch. Until the past few years, computer systems made by different companies often didn't interoperate well, though the rise of the Internet and agreements on open communications and software standards have brought major improvements.
Analysts and customers applaud the manifesto as a first step toward assuring openness in the era of cloud computing. "It's a good idea. Open standards are good for the industry," says Dell's Schuckenbrock. Analyst Stephen O'Grady of the market research firm Redmonk calls it a step in the right direction. "If these problems can be understood and addressed early, cloud customers and vendors alike could potentially benefit." If the industry doesn't achieve an acceptable level of openness, he warns, it will slow adoption of the new technologies and services.
Industry politics could get in the way of progress, however. About half of the 70 tech companies to which IBM circulated the manifesto endorsed it, including AT&T (T), EMC (EMC), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Sun Microsystems (JAVA), and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).
But others did not. Microsoft was among them. Steven Martin, a senior director at Microsoft, says the company got the document on Mar. 22 and was given a deadline of 48 hours to sign on—with no opportunity to suggest changes. In some cases, he says, language in the manifesto was so general that it would be nearly impossible to object to. But, in other cases, the practical implications were unclear. "Our premise is that standards should not only be open, but there should also be an open dialogue about them," he says.
Bruce Francis, vice-president for corporate strategy at Salesforce.com, says he agrees with the goal of achieving interoperability in cloud computing, but Salesforce.com didn't sign because it feels it's already working hard on the goal and would rather be judged by its actions. "We look forward to working with the signatories and other companies and keeping the cloud open and robust for the enterprise," he says.
IBM's Kloeckner says the manifesto was intended to be just a broad agreement on principles. He expects it to lead to a wide-open collaboration involving all interested parties, including customers. "It's in all of our interests to work together to build an open ecosystem," he says.
IBM and Microsoft have cooperated closely on several technology standards-setting efforts, including those concerning basic Internet technologies. But, occasionally, they clash. In a feud that dragged on for years, the two giants failed to agree on a global standard for interoperability of text documents. The computing world would benefit if the open cloud effort turns out differently.